Cruising the Kimberley

Explore the ancient and spectacular Kimberley coastline on a cruise and be treated to world-class sightseeing and activities you can’t see or do elsewhere.

One of the last great wilderness areas left on earth, WA’s Kimberley region is a vast, empty, mysterious land that scientists are only just beginning to understand.

Formed in ancient times after modern-day Australia separated from the Gondwana supercontinent, it has been flooded by melting ice caps, shaped by eons of geological upheaval and scarred by monsoonal rains.

Then and now, water has played a significant role in its formation. Rising sea levels drowned its coastal shorelines and swamped its river valleys. Massive tides that are among the world’s largest now ebb and flow with alarming power and speed, dictating cruise itineraries on a daily basis.

Exploring this region from the water allows you to experience many natural wonders you would otherwise miss, from its vast array of marine life, to offshore islands and fascinating mangrove eco-systems.

What you’ll see from the water

From spectacular river gorges and soaring red sea cliffs, languid bays and deserted beaches – each day differs from the previous one on a Kimberley cruise. The region’s inviting beaches and milky turquoise waters will astound you, though be warned: swimming is a perilous pursuit in these shark and croc-infested waters. On the other hand, there are many freshwater swimming holes to cool off in.

You’ll be disbelieving of the speed at which the tides change at Montgomery Reef and the Horizontal Falls. And you’ll wonder how any creature could survive the turbulent waters of Whirlpool Pass, the channel separating Hidden Island from the mainland.

Whales and dolphins can be sighted daily. Sea eagles, brahminy kites and ospreys fly gracefully overhead. Stop and listen and you’ll hear melodic birdcalls. Search hard enough and you may even spot nocturnal monjons, the world’s smallest rock wallaby, hiding in the shadows above the water’s edge.

Prince Frederick Harbour is arguably the most beautiful natural anchorage in the Kimberleys, surrounded by sandstone bluffs and mangrove estuaries at the mouth of the Hunter River – said to contain more crocodiles per square metre than any other river in Australia.

Depending on the tides, you may visit the Lacepede Islands, a safe haven for lesser frigatebirds, brown boobies and crested terns. On the Anjo Peninsula, you may walk on a jungle trail to a World War II plane wreck.

Options for cruising

More than 20 cruise operators ply the Kimberley coast. Vessels range from large ocean liners to mid-sized ships with helicopter pads and onboard spas, right down to twinhulled catamarans with shallow drafts designed to feel the spray from waterfalls or nudge up against a crocodile. All have tenders for further exploration or for finding the perfect fishing spot.

Which one you choose will depend on many things. What sights do you want to visit most? What activities are offered? Are there optional extras? Other considerations are your price point, personal interests, culinary expectations and comfort standards.

The cruise season kicks off in March, when humidity levels are high and the waterfalls are pumping. Weather conditions stabilise during the dry winter months, with temperatures rising through September and October, when most waterfalls slow to a trickle.

No major ports exist between Broome and Darwin, so when one cruise finishes most ships turn around and retrace their route. Some only travel as far as Wyndham, where return flights to Broome or Darwin save on time and fuel. Several companies conduct abbreviated itineraries that concentrate on attractions closer to Broome, Derby or Wyndham. Others only operate during the early months of the season.

Key attractions

Horizontal Falls

Sir David Attenborough listed the phenomena as “Australia’s most unusual natural wonder” and it’s no wonder. Every second, one million litres of water floods through two narrow gorges in the  McLarty Range. Called a tidal pinch, it has also been compared to an ocean trying to fit through a letterbox.

Montgomery Reef

Driven by the immense tides, Montgomery Reef appears to rise from the ocean as the water recedes around it, creating countless foaming waterfalls – some so voluminous that you could raft down them. The coral reef covers some 300 square kilometres.

Careening Bay

Maritime explorers from 200 years ago inscribed their visit into the trunk of a bloated boab tree that’s many years older. Known as the Mermaid Tree, it was named after the ship that was captained by Lieutenant Phillip Parker King and marooned here while the crew undertook repairs in 1820.

King Cascades

It’s a long haul to get here, 20km up the Prince Regent River. But it’s a pleasant journey with plenty to see along the way, culminating in a spectacular waterfall tumbling gently over rock ledges into waters where crocodiles loiter.

King George Falls

Access Western Australia’s highest twin waterfalls via a stunning river gorge that doubles as a protective anchorage for yachties. It’s most impressive immediately after the wet season, when twin cascades plunge from a sandstone plateau around 80m high. Even in September, when the falls are reduced to a trickle, this is still one mighty impressive gorge.

Jar Island

The Gwion Gwion or Bradshaw Indigenous rock art style found in caves or sheltered from the elements under rock overhangs on Jar Island depict dancing and hunting figures from as far back as 30,000 years ago. The artworks illustrated stories that could be passed on through subsequent generations.

RACQ Travel Offer

Discover epic landscapes and cruise the remote Kimberley coastline aboard an intimate expedition ship with APT. RACQ Travel consultant Annette Manteuffel has experienced Kimberley cruising and would be happy share her knowledge with you. Call RACQ Travel on 1300 188 713.


Story by Mark Daffey. Photos by Mark Daffey and Getty Images. Mark Daffey travelled courtesy of Coral Expeditions.